The OIC and the crisis in Turkish-Saudi relations

The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC)’s 14th summit held in Mecca this week has been overshadowed by the crises brewing between Turkey, the last chair of the OIC, and Saudi Arabia, which assumed the chairmanship last week.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan places great stock in this type of grand international organisation. Yet this time, the Turkish president handed off the responsibility of representing Turkey to his foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, who also handed over the chairmanship to Saudi Arabia.

Turkey’s relations with Saudi Arabia have been dire for some time, with major differences from the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to Turkey’s support for Qatar holding the rivals apart.

Çavuşoğlu used the OIC summit as an opportunity to aim a dig at the Saudi government, reminding attendees that the organisation’s foundation was linked to the common aim of protecting Muslims’ rights in Jerusalem after the Israeli occupation of the city.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as the Israeli capital was seen as a great setback for the rights of the predominantly Muslim Palestinians. Trump’s so-called “deal of the century” is likewise considered to favour the Israeli side. The Saudi administration, which is a close ally of Trump’s, has been criticised for its muted reactions to the events in Jerusalem, so Çavuşoğlu’s barb was designed to strike a nerve with the OIC’s new chairs.

Erdoğan’s Turkey has been one of the strongest supporters of the Palestinian cause, and the Turkish president’s frequent interventions on the issue have gained him popularity in Arab states. While Turkey made Palestine a priority during its OIC chairmanship, calling an extraordinary meeting after Trump’s Jerusalem announcement, this is unlikely to continue under the chairmanship of Salman’s administration, which steers close to Trump.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the two countries’ seething rivalry, which has become more bitter than ever since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman took charge as the country’s de facto leader in 2017.

Saudi Arabia and Turkey are two of the Middle East’s three major Sunni Muslim states, with Egypt the third. While Cairo and Riyadh are close allies on a wide number of issues, Ankara’s conflicting foreign policy and support of the Muslim Brotherhood has brought it into an array of disputes with both.

Shortly after he was named crown prince in 2017, Salman kicked off his aggressive foreign policy with an attempt to cripple Qatar, one of Turkey’s closest regional allies, in a blockade joined by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. The Arab quartet accused the Qatari government of harbouring leaders from the Muslim Brotherhood, which Riyadh and many other Arab states view as a danger.

Qatar survived with help from Turkey and Iran, but the conflict over the tiny Gulf state has set the lines for a regional battle for control.

Salman and his allies appear determined to target Turkish and Qatari strongholds around the Middle East and North Africa, hoping to leave these rivals isolated.

Initiatives to achieve that goal range from Libya, where the Saudi and Egypt-backed Libyan National Army has put the Turkish-backed Government of National Accord firmly on the back foot, to Syria, where the Saudi government is supporting Kurdish militants that Turkey counts as a major security threat.

In Sudan, where street protests toppled dictator Omar al-Bashir, an ally of Erdoğan’s, after 30 years in power, Riyadh and Ankara are competing to gain influence over Abdel Fattah el-Burhan, the leader of the military junta that has assumed control of the country.

Turkey’s open support for the Muslim Brotherhood, which is viewed by the Saudi government as an existential threat, has been one of the main issues leading to the crisis.

After Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in the 2011 Egyptian uprising, the ascent of a Muslim Brotherhood-linked president, Mohamed Morsi, set alarm bells ringing in Saudi Arabia and other authoritarian Gulf states.  

Morsi only held on to power for a year before a counter-revolution led by General Abdal Fettah al-Sisi overthrew his government in a coup and assumed power. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have provided tens of billions of dollars in aid to Sisi’s regime to help it consolidate power. The rise of Sisi, who now also enjoys support from Trump, has been a blow to Turkey and Qatar.

Likewise, the Libyan National Army’s successes against the Turkish-backed Trablus administration, considered a key Muslim Brotherhood fortress, have weakened both the brotherhood and Ankara in the region.

With air and ground support from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the LNA has backed the Government of National Accord into a corner. Turkey and Qatar have provided weapons and ammunition on a large scale to prevent their Libyan allies from collapse.

The second issue fuelling the diplomatic crisis was the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last October. Khashoggi, a vocal critic of Salman’s government, had entered the consulate to pick up divorce papers. Months of leaks from Turkish security sources showed that he was killed by a team likely sent by the Saudi government. The team included close associates of the crown prince.

Erdoğan seized on the opportunity to corner his greatest regional rival, at the same time attempting to bolster his international image after years of bad press over his government’s authoritarian practices.

Yet even the release of sound recordings said to include the moments Khashoggi was murdered was not enough to gather the international support Erdoğan needed to deal a crushing blow to Salman.

Trump’s support is thought to have shielded the crown prince, and Turkey eventually curbed the attack. The topic of Khashoggi was not raised at subsequent OIC gatherings, including the one in Mecca.

The frequent calls on Saudi media for a boycott on Turkey may also have played a role in the new quietude on Khashoggi – Saudi Arabia is a major investor in Turkey, and each year hundreds of thousands of tourists travel there from the Kingdom.

There are, too, areas of cooperation between the countries, including Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, which Turkey has provided logistical support for.

Indeed, the main problems began with Salman’s ascent, and while the ambitious and aggressive prince is in charge, it is difficult to see an end to clashes.

Nevertheless, Erdoğan has tended to follow a pragmatic course in his foreign relations, and disagreements with rival leaders have not stopped him from embracing them as friends the next day. This is the leader who berated Trump one day and met with him the next, and who called German officials “Nazis” before meeting them for talks months later. If circumstances require it, we cannot rule out Erdoğan making a move to repair relations.



The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.